One of the most confusing literary devices is also one of the most frequently seen in literature – imagery.
It’s a term that means everything and nothing at all, so it’s about time we clarified what it actually means, and how we can use it accurately in literary analysis.
What does ‘imagery’ mean?
Imagery, as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary, means –
The use of words or pictures in books, movies, paintings etc to describe ideas or situations
– which, for our purposes, is almost utterly useless (I’ve got mad love for lexicographers, but they really should step their game up when it comes to literary-specific definitions, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog).
To make matters more confusing, different sources seem to have their own views on what constitutes imagery, as below –
“Imagery means to use figurative language to represent objects, actions, and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses.” (literarydevices.net)
And yet –
“Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses […] While imagery can and often does benefit from the use of figurative language such as metaphors and similes, imagery can also be written without using any figurative language at all.” (LitCharts)
So… does imagery refer to the use of figurative language? Or figurative and literal language?
And can “descriptive language” mean both figurative and literal language? Also, what’s up with the reference to metaphors and similes in the definition of imagery – aren’t they all separate devices…?!
Before we confuse ourselves even further, just remember this:
Imagery is just an umbrella term for groups of descriptions which relate to a similar idea.
In short, diction – a writer’s choice of words – is the common denominator of all imagery.
So, unlike simile, metaphor, personification etc., you can’t have ‘one imagery’ (or two, for that matter), because imagery is a collective term created by a series of thematically similar descriptions.
Here’s an example:
To illustrate, let’s read the passage below –
The sun, with its golden ridges, popped its head above the distant azure, which seemed to wear a purplish gloss from momentary refraction. As the yellow rays beamed across the green pastures below, we saw a magical fusion of sea, land and sky – a rainbow triptych of wonder.
What is the common ‘group of words’ that stands out from this description?
Words such as “golden”, “azure”, “purplish”, “yellow”, “green” and “rainbow” come together to depict a morning landscape by sweeping it with a verbal palette.
This, then, is an example of colour imagery.
Notice that it’s a group of adjectives which creates the imagery, so had it just been a phrase or two, that wouldn’t suffice as ‘imagery’ in literary analysis.
What types of imagery are there?
Colour imagery is perhaps the most obvious sort of imagery – there are, of course, others. These include:
Sensory imagery, such as –
- Visual (sight)
- Auditory (hearing)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Tactile (touch)
Kinaesthetic imagery (movement and action)
Subjective / organic imagery (emotions and bodily sensations, e.g. dizziness, pain, sorrow)
While we’re on sensory imagery – a brief note on synaesthesia.
This term refers to the intermingling of senses.
It’s actually a neurological condition, but in the context of literary description, synaesthesia would be something like –
“The pianist was playing a delicious tune”.
While “delicious” relates to taste, “tune” means melody, and is therefore related to hearing. Nonsensical as it may literally seem, the combination of gustatory and auditory references works to highlight the sweet, pleasant nature of the pianist’s music.
Is synaesthesia an example of imagery, then?
Yes, because it is a specific type of sensory imagery.
Who’s not afraid of Virginia Woolf – and her imagery?
One of the best 20th-century writers of all time (at least in my opinion) – Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) – is a master of imagery.
Her novels aren’t for everyone, partly because they tend to be thin on plot and action, but heavy on description and introspection.
While her prose contains some of the most elegant specimens of style, it requires real mental energy and intellectual engagement to appreciate.
Thanks to social media, we now live in the most attention-deficit period in human history, which doesn’t exactly provide the best conditions for reading a Woolf novel (or reading altogether).
Still, if you want the best examples of imagery in literature, I’d recommend her work in a heartbeat.
And if you don’t have time to read her work, well, at least you’re reading this blog post (unless you’re actually studying Woolf, in which case please do read her work! No ‘SparkNotes’ synopsis-skimming monkey business here…)
In any case, let’s look at how Woolf leverages all kinds of imagery to elevate impressions and activate moments of consciousness (or what she calls “moments of being”) for her readers.
Reading Mrs Dalloway: “in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar”
The opening to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) is a synesthetic tapestry.
Basically, it’s prose that’s more art and music than words and language. It’s like the words are alive.
The perspective of the eponymous character begins in the present, as she considers her errands for the day, before allowing her memory to travel back in time to a specific encounter between her younger self and a past lover – all triggered by a motley of sensations upon opening her windows.
She wonders what’s happened to him.
All the while, she appreciates whatever she sees, smells, hears and feels of the city around her –
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”–was that it?–“I prefer men to cauliflowers”–was that it?
This excerpt, while short, is packed with examples of auditory, organic, kinaesthetic and visual imagery.
The suggestion is that the “lark” – a songbird – is seen to “plunge” upon Mrs Dalloway’s opening of her windows, which overlaps with the “plunge” of her face into the open air, as she feels with joy the embrace of morning breeze. While she “hear[s]… a little squeak of the hinges” from the window crack, this contrasts against the imagery of the wave – an overwhelming force which “flap[s]” and “kiss[es]” against Mrs Dalloway’s cheeks.
It is “fresh”, “calm”, “chill and sharp and yet… solemn”, as this sensory buffet sets the scene for the character’s infectious excitement about life.
The pivot from present to past is activated with the turn from sensation to memory, as Mrs Dalloway recalls herself “looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks (crows) rising, falling” in the sky, until a man called Peter Walsh (her past lover) interrupts with a teasing comment – “Musing among the vegetables?”, to which she offered a similarly flirtatious response – “I prefer men to cauliflowers” (though the repeated “was that it?” suggests that she can’t actually remember if those were the words they had said).
There’s such a lot of poignancy conveyed in just one moment, and much of this intensity is created by Woolf’s dynamic use of imagery.
From men and cauliflowers to cars and people
The scene continues with a shift from the individual to the cityscape, as Mrs Dalloway muses on her love for London, its budding dynamism and energy:
For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
There’s a euphonious interplay between auditory and kinaesthetic imagery here.
From the quiet – “a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense” – to the loud – “There! Out it boomed”, Woolf presents the atmospheric diversity of the city by stretching her description across the decibel scale.
The rhythmic variation in her sentences mimic the tumble and tussle of street traffic and pedestrian movement, with the jolting activity “in the swing, tramp, and trudge” of the “carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging” (kinaesthetic imagery) rubbing up against “the bellow and the uproar” of the “brass bands; barrel organs” – all elevated to “the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead” (auditory imagery).
The tug-and-pull between staccato phrases and enjambed lines adds to the vivid tableau of action and music, which imbues Woolf’s portrayal of London with an organic life of its own.
In Mrs Dalloway’s love for the city we feel Woolf’s love, albeit if only through the vicarious energy of her descriptions.
Reading To the Lighthouse: “quiet rose, quiet spread; the wind settled”
Two years after the publication of Mrs Dalloway, Woolf introduced to the world what’s arguably her seminal work – To the Lighthouse – in 1927.
This novella is quintessentially ‘modernist’ in its narrative economy and introspective depth.
Not much goes on by way of plot: a middle-class family, the Ramsays (understood to be modelled on Woolf’s own family), are hosting a gathering for an eclectic group of acquaintances, among which include Lily Briscoe, a young artist whose insight and perspective come to dominate the novel’s voice, and Charles Tansley, an arrogant philosopher and protege of Mr Ramsay, whose insecurities about his working-class background compel him to behave in unpleasant ways.
The plotline is overtly held together by the family’s decision to, as it were, go ‘to the lighthouse’, but the narrative’s timeline spans over two decades, during which certain family members die, regrets are felt, and incidents (or lack thereof) take place.
The novella contains 3 sections, with the middle one – titled ‘Time Passes’ – being the bleakest by way of content (it’s about the harrowing and hollowing effects of WWI), but most poetic by way of description.
In Chapter 9 of this section, Woolf describes the tragic scene of a house that has been long unattended and emptied of life –
The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots. Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window-pane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass; giant artichokes towered among roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages; while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer.
What’s curious about this moment is that despite the silence which pervades the house (which is the Ramsays’ holiday home on the Isle of Skye), Woolf zooms in on the pockets of activity, where life – whether literal or figurative – exists in minutiae.
Devoid of human laughter and activity, there’s nonetheless “the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling”, which are examples of personification reinforced by kinaesthetic imagery.
Long-abandoned items such as “the swaying shawl swung to and fro… idly, aimlessly”, “a thistle thrust itself between the tiles”, “the plaster fell in shovelfuls”, “tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis”, “poppies sowed themselves”, the lawn waved with long grass”…
It’s as if furniture and nature are doing their own thing, going about their own business, even when there seems to be no apparent signs of life to the average human eye.
This is a muted orchestra of both gentle and forceful movements: there’s ‘thrusting’, ‘falling’, ‘bursting’, but also ‘waving’, ‘gentle tapping’, and ‘drumming’, all which collide to compose a melancholy, yet organic, impression.
From deadly silence to silent action
After Mrs McNab, the housekeeper, revitalises the abandoned holiday home in preparation for Mr Ramsay and his children’s arrival – the first time in ten years, the house seems to regain a hint of life –
And now as if the cleaning and the scrubbing and the scything and the mowing had drowned it there rose that half-heard melody, that intermittent music which the ear half catches but lets fall; a bark, a bleat; irregular, intermittent, yet somehow related; the hum of an insect, the tremor of cut grass, dissevered yet somehow belonging; the jar of a dorbeetle, the squeak of a wheel, loud, low, but mysteriously related; which the ear strains to bring together and is always on the verge of harmonising, but they are never quite heard, never fully harmonised, and at last, in the evening, one after another the sounds die out, and the harmony falters, and silence falls. With the sunset sharpness was lost, and like mist rising, quiet rose, quiet spread, the wind settled; loosely the world shook itself down to sleep, darkly here without a light to it, save what came green suffused through leaves, or pale on the white flowers in the bed by the window.
Notice the emphasis on sounds in this section.
As a result of “the cleaning and the scrubbing and the scything and the mowing” – kinaesthetic references that suggest the hard work with which Mrs McNab attempted to ‘resuscitate’ the house, one hears the musical stirrings in the space, as if the house – after a decade of decay and neglect – is now slowly waking up from its protracted slumber.
And it’s not just one sound, but a multitude of sounds, congregating in a series of sonic paradoxes (via auditory imagery): there’s “a bark, a bleat” that’s “irregular, intermittent, yet somehow related”, perhaps in their joy of the house’s ‘awakening’; there’s the quieter “hum of an insect, the tremor of cut grass”, which are “dissevered yet somehow belonging”, perhaps wounded but relieved in seeing the house once again come to life.
With “the jar of a dorbeetle, the squeak of a wheel” which are “loud, low, but mysteriously related”, both nature and machinery respond to the invite of a spatial rebirth.
These sounds, so unlike in genesis and yet united in their anticipation of life, culminate in a modernist symphony that “is always on the verge of harmonising, but… [is] never quite heard, never fully harmonised”.
After all, the sort of relief that comes after war can never restore full euphony. And so “one after another the sounds die out, and the harmony falters, and silence falls”.
Like Lily Briscoe’s final vision towards the end of the book, there is no “great revelation”, nor great consolation, in life.
People come, things happen, then it all turns to dust.
The synaesthesia of “quiet rose, quiet spread” is an exceptionally poignant moment, because it reinforces the finality and pervasiveness of silence in the cosmos.
And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom, as Woolf ends on a note of colour: despite the darkness that’s “without a light” in this house, there is still the “green [which came] suffused through leaves”, and the “pale on the white flowers in the bed by the window”.
For all the evil and tragedy that such incidents as war may expose about humanity, the symbolism of green leaves and white flowers encourages us to believe that there should never be a complete loss of faith, especially, of faith in moral rebirth and human goodness.
I hope this post clarifies what ‘imagery’ means in literary analysis, and how you can analyse its use in literature.
While Woolf’s writing is certainly no walk in the park, anyone who appreciates artistic, sublime prose should give at least Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse a shot.